I was greatly influenced and encouraged during my Seminary days by Dr. Aubrey Malphurs. So when I learned about his newest book, Look Before You Lead I jumped at the chance to read it. I wasn’t disappointed!
The subtitle of Malphur’s book is an accurate description of the tone and tenor of this leadership treasure: How to Discern and Shape Your Church Culture.
Part 1: The Basics of Congregational Culture
Part one is a primer on culture and how effective ministries navigate successfully in a given cultural milieu. Malphurs writes encourages pastors to read their respective cultures: “If they fail to read the culture well, it will mean that the culture of the church will lead and manage them … The better a pastor knows his church’s culture, the better he’ll be able to lead his church. To a great degree, leadership decisions are based on the knowledge of one’s culture as well as one’s gifts and abilities as a leader.” Ultimately, churches must adapt to their culture, while at the same time, maintaining doctrinal integrity.
The author discusses congregational culture, which he compares to an apple. The skin on the apple represents the church’s outward behavior. The apple’s flesh represents the church’s values. And the core of the apple represents the beliefs or doctrinal standards of the church. These three elements combine to give the church its distinct flavor and character in the community. Dr. Malphurs carefully unpacks the three distinguishing characteristics of the cultural apple and provides tools for pastors to determine their cultural niche.
Churches may respond to cultures in three specific ways, namely – isolation, accommodation, and contextualization. Isolated churches will either cloister around a set of ideals and never make any difference in the world. Eventually, they will die.
Church who accommodate to culture (like emergent churches) compromise by embracing the spirit of the age and adopting liberal theology and man-centered ideology that may look good externally, but will in the final analysis result in watered down temples of worldiness.
Churches who contextualize seek to communicate the gospel in ways that fit the cultural context without compromising the truth. Malphurs rightly notes that, “the gospel is supracultural in its origin and essence but cultural in its interpretation and application.” Therefore, Christians must be careful to differentiate between the gospel and their culture in order to effectively penetrate the lives of people.
Part 2: Reading Congregational Culture
Reading congregational culture involves a deeper understanding of the so-called cultural apple; that is to say, pastors must exegete their congregational culture. The author includes numerous exercises that will lead to a proper reading of the congregational culture. Additionally, he encourages pastors to address several critical issues:
- Discern if the Culture is Spiritually Mature or Immature
- Determine Where You as a Leader Will Be Most Effective
Malphurs encourages pastors to do an honest self-assessment. Pastors must discover the origins of their cultural framework which include an uncovering of the leaders behavior, values and cherished beliefs.
Part 3: Shaping Congregational Culture
The final section includes several ways that pastors can and should shape their congregational culture. Numerous exercises are included to help pastors effectively do this. Practical help is offered for those who resist change. Five levels of leadership need to be effectively saturated with the vision for maximum impact:
- Governing board
- Ministry staff and committees
- Sunday school teachers and small group leaders
- Leaders of support ministries
- A patriarch and/or matriarch
“The wise leader,” writes Malphurs, “encourages change more by asking insightful questions than by offering directions or giving ultimatums.” Good communication is paramount in the process.
The bad news is that at least 80 percent of churches are either on the plateau or are in a state of decline. So pastors must navigate the waters of change with care, boldness, and determined vision.
Look Before You Lead is a terrific book that should receive a wide reading. Dr. Malphurs offers a deep knowledge of strategic planning but offers advice with the heart of a seasoned shepherd.